Armenia and Israel: Politically Divorced, Culturally United
In this time of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey and Islamic jihadists, I really don’t know if the ordinary people of these respective nations can really be friends anymore. Even before the conflict, it’s difficult to deny that ethnic tensions—between common individuals as well—have always existed. Indeed, as mature adults, we can all take part in the song and dance of politeness; we can even smile at each other without placing any warmth into our gestures; we can pretend and continue to live as if nothing serious is happening or has happened in the past, but this would all be a lie. In the end, the shallow politeness thoroughly meaningless because, let’s face it, for a Turkish person, it’s easier to establish a sense of camaraderie with someone from Azerbaijan, and, likewise, an Armenian would face fewer challenges becoming friends with individuals from Greece, just as an example.
Many times already I’ve stated that as an idealist in the Don Quixote style I’ve always thought and continue to think that everyone deserves to be judged based on their own experiences and traits, but why is this so difficult to do? Moreover, why can it be that the former premise’s logic sounds so true on the surface, yet, the very fundamental argument itself should be so hard to embrace in real life? In the most realistic sense, I don’t think it’s quite controversial to say, just as an example, that ordinary Jews and Palestinians would have a harder time forming lasting friendships with each other than with another party whose nation both individuals, respectively, aren’t engaged in a conflict with; let’s stop being idealistic for a second and recognize that wars between states (whether historical or current), genocides (again, historical or current), or any other conflicts certainly do affect, to a large extent, how everyday citizens affected by them will engage one another.
Why is the truth so hard to accept? The victims, in the case of the Jewish nation, for example, can be comforted in their suffering (relatively speaking) if the perpetrator—Germany—takes every conceivable step to not only apologize but also make amends. Even after all the reparations Germany has paid over the years—even after all the genocide memorials it has erected (like the one below in Berlin, which I visited in 2018) to commemorate the Shoah, many survivors of that tragic event, like Sonia Warshawski, still refuse to “forgive,” which is understandable, as per her logic.
For Warshawski, who stated the following, forgiveness was something that had to come from God, not herself: “I shall never forget. I shall never forgive. Why I say I cannot forgive? Because forgiveness, in my opinion, has borders. How in the world can I tell you I forgive? I will feel ashamed, embarrassed, what I have seen those people dying, those terrible things. Who am I that I can forgive? This has to come from a higher power. Not from me. This is impossible. I would be wrong.” Her statement makes sense in the end because she ultimately concludes it by saying there’s no hatred in her heart; that would be self-destructive, but forgiveness is another thing.
If that’s the standard we were to apply, then, how are Armenians supposed to feel anything but animosity towards the Turkish state, which has, for one, made no attempt to pay any reparations, and secondly, refused to recognize our own suffering; in addition, what are we supposed to do when, to this day, the vehement campaign of denial continues? It naturally benefits the perpetrator’s state (both in terms of politics and mentality) for the victim to stay silent and pretend like nothing has happened. In this respect, to be quite honest, I’m always a little upset when Turkish people are extremely nice to me. Although I appreciate it, I often feel cheated because while their gestures can be interpreted in very positive ways, the positivity of such “friendliness” also plays a large role in pushing this unresolved issue of the genocide, along with the general tension between us (which does exist), further into the corner; that’s exactly what I mean by the song and dance of politeness—the more “positive” it is, the more damage it really does, and the harder it tries to be friendly, the more forceful this effort of taking out the obvious “tension” from the equation becomes.
Now, am I saying Jews and Palestinians can’t be friends? No, because there are plenty examples of that and even marriages between the two (the most famous being a celebrity union between Lucy Aharish, the “first Arab to anchor a Hebrew-language program on Israeli television,” according to Deutsche Welle, and Tzachi Halevi, an Arabic speaking Jewish actor who appeared in a Netflix TV show called Fauda). Suffice it to say, there was plenty of backlash, according to that same Deutsche Welle article, which only proves my point, but still, things like this happen and are by no means an impossibility. “We’re signing a peace accord,” the couple joked to an Israeli newspaper.
Likewise, am I saying Armenians and Turks can only hate each other? No, because there are plenty examples which prove the contrary and marriages too. Like in the case of Israelis and Palestinians, just think of the Turkish-born Armenian academic Daron Acemoglu (one of the pre-eminent economists in the world and the most cited one in the past ten years who married his Turkish spouse—another academic, Asuman Özdağlar, with whom he has two children).
Indeed, things like this may and do happen, but that’s not the point at all. While Acemoglu’s marriage hasn’t brought about the same criticism as the aforementioned Israeli-Palestinian one, it’s nevertheless a rare occurrence because of the animosities that such marriages can create, as we’ve already seen. What I’m saying, thus, is that it’s better, especially now, not to deceive ourselves regarding the tension which exists and has always existed between our peoples. To say that Armenians respect Turks and Azeris as much as they respect everyone else would be a mistake because that’s not true by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is it true for the other parties involved. If we pretend there are no problems and continue going about our business, smiling at each other, continuing the song and dance of politeness, then we miss the chance to solve the very issues we have—entirely for the reason that we do continue going about our lives in a manner that suggests there are no problems at all. We pretend there are none, so there must be none. Resolutions, however, don’t come out of nowhere; they arise precisely out of conflicts, and only through our willingness to face them can they truly manifest.
Well, why am I saying all of this—the article is about Jewish and Armenian cultural connections, solidarity, and similarities. Like all of my pieces that meander, however, there’s also a point, here, for all that I’ve written as well. Now that Israel is openly selling weapons to Azerbaijan and making no qualms about it, the natural tendency would be to ignore the problem and go on with our existence; nevertheless, I think this approach would entail making the same mistake as I’ve described above—the pleasant song and dance of politeness that means absolutely nothing to anybody.
Instead of playing games with my emotions and hiding the way I feel, I would like to come out and say that, yes, I’m deeply troubled and upset by the realpolitik Israel is conducting. As a nation which has endured genocide as well, and one which actively promotes their suffering as “unique” from what other people have suffered, I find it rather discouraging that their government would act in this manner.
Naturally, it’s quite unfortunate that, unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia has very little it can offer Israel, as highlighted by a recent opinion piece published in Haaretz, aptly titled, “Disunited by Genocide: How Armenia’s Relations With Israel Have Come to a Dead End.” Indeed, as the author says, firstly, we don’t have oil; secondly, we neither have money to buy Israeli weapons nor can we provide the much-needed bases for their planes to use in case Iran gets belligerent—it’s imperative for us to get along with Iran because together with Georgia (the only other border open to us) we have no more outlets to the world. However, Israel hates Iran because it’s their number one enemy, and so it goes ad nauseam; furthermore, Israel has been relying on Azeri oil for decades and the former’s relations with Iran aren’t exactly great. Isn’t it just a wonderful example of having your hands tied? As the author writes, “From Israel’s perspective, the notional brotherhood between Armenians and Jews, sharing the same destiny as victims of genocide, was not as meaningful as robust economic, strategic, and cultural relations with Turkey.” Enough said.
Truly, in the end, it doesn’t matter that Jerusalem—one of the holiest sites in the world—has an Armenian Quarter; it doesn’t matter that both people suffered unspeakable horrors and that there are many Armenians who protected Jews during the Shoah (according to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, there are 24 such names to be found among the Righteous Among the Nations); it doesn’t matter that Armenians will forever be indebted to some of the greatest Jewish writers like Franz Werfel, Vasily Grossman, and Osip Mandelstam (pictured below in his more fortunate years) for bringing international attention to their suffering. None of this culture, solidarity, and history really matters for politics because it’s no different than trying to feed a starving person with religion; it’s all good and well, but the lofty sentiments are simply of no use for the person who needs something tangible—food, clothing, and oil, perhaps.
By no means am I drawing a parallel between Israel and a starving person; what I am doing is highlighting the fact that for countries to ensure political stability, they need something more than lofty ideals to bring it about. We can’t offer Israel any of that because like them, we find ourselves, once again, in the same position of being surrounded by hostile powers—the US, thousands of miles away, is basically the only lifeline Israel has, while Russia, much nearer for us, is our own equivalent. We must play by their tune or risk being wiped out, and, thus, any Western reform that Armenia wants to institute—well, it better think twice about that, because if Russia doesn’t like it, then goodbye to that security, which is by and large exactly how things transpired during the leadership of the progressive Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who most likely took it a little too far with his ambitious Western reforms; Russia is, hence, not to “rushing” to help us during our most pressing time of need. After all, it’s not difficult to imagine what Putin is thinking: If you want help, go ask America and Europe, both of whom you’ve been courting these past two years. Fair enough, I guess.
Again, what’s the point? The point is precisely politics and it’s nothing personal. At the end of the day, although I’m angry with Israel’s continued selling of weapons to Azerbaijan, I can’t let go of my sympathy towards the Jewish people themselves, along with the solidarity our people ultimately share, and the impact their writers and artists have made on our culture, and visa versa. I still plan on visiting Israel, walking among the streets of the Armenian Quarter, touching the Western Wall, visiting the Dead Sea, and lively Tel-Aviv.
When all the dust has settled, so to speak, at least in the context of politics, I really don’t think this hypothetical question is relevant to our discussion: Would Armenia, for example, placed in the same difficult geopolitical position of necessity, sell weapons to Palestine—with the knowledge that they would use them to attack Israel? I don’t like to think about it because, if forced, as Israel today is, Armenia would probably act much the same way, and the reason for this being that culture and religion, like I’ve already said, provide no sustenance for the physical body; ultimately, politics deal very little with the metaphysical realm, insofar as ideals concern their existence, at the very least.
This article, however, is about culture and history; on these pages, the shared pain of genocide and suffering do matter. Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam can be heard. The historical presence of Armenians in the city of Jerusalem is relevant and is certainly felt. I must admit that I feel positively overwhelmed as I write this. In a strange way, I feel more connection to Israel than I’ve ever felt. I want to go there, take in the history, talk to the people, listen to their stories, tell them where I’m from, and just connect with them on a human level—outside the context of politics. I know this is possible because of how much we really have in common with each other. It’s a history that no amount of money, oil, economic advantage, or military superiority can equal.
Anyone who studies the past will be aware that the Ottoman Empire had to collapse in order for the Jews to have a chance at statehood in Palestine, a territory which the aforementioned empire controlled at that time. After WWI, as most of us know, that empire crumbled, and with this development arose the opportunity for the English finally to realize the goal of the Balfour Declaration, effectively leading to the creation of a Jewish state some thirty years later, something which wouldn’t have been possible without the Ottoman defeat that necessitated their relinquishing of Palestine to the victorious British. And today, while the mighty Turks have long gone, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem has remained.
I feel incredibly proud that we should have the distinction of having our own quarter, and while many people feel that it separates us from the rest of the Christian community in the city, I feel just the opposite, despite the fact that according to Adnan Abu Odeh’s article, “Religious Inclusion, Political Inclusion: Jerusalem as an Undivided Capital,” published in the Catholic University Law Review, “Armenians consider their quarter to be part of the Christian Quarter.” I certainly sympathize with this notion; however, Christianity itself is something unique for the Armenians as they were the first nation to adopt it as their official state religion.
Indeed, the Armenian presence in Jerusalem predates the Turkish arrival by at least a thousand years, when the former began arriving to the holy city shortly after their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, whereas the Turks entered Europe only in the 14th century, and Jerusalem even later, in the 16th century; clearly, then, it isn’t “our city” or a city “from us,” as the great dictator known as Erdogan recently claimed—one of his most outrageous but nevertheless not his sole asinine remark.
Places aren’t the only thing which links Jewish people with Armenians. There are also important figures. I will not discuss every last person, historical personality, and event that connects our people; my aim will be to mention those Jews, like Werfel, Grossman, and Mandelstam, who’ve spoken and written at length about Armenia, mainly to try and convince my fellow countrymen that while it’s completely acceptable to be angry at Israel at this moment (let’s not fall prey to the song and dance of politeness), we shouldn’t forget that the Jewish people themselves are really not our enemies. In my heart, I’m convinced that the majority of Jews don’t approve of this particular action their government has taken, if only on a moral level. I believe that the people living in a nation which has endured the Shoah (an event so recent that some survivors are with us to this day) stand in solidarity with Armenians during our difficult time and it’s completely inconceivable to me how so many people with a direct and indirect connection to such a horrific event could be anything but upset—on a moral level—with the current actions of their government.
As I’ve said, there’s no room for politics in this article; it’s about people like Franz Werfel, without whom the Armenian Genocide would’ve been mostly forgotten had he not written The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So powerful and popular was the book, that the Turkish lobby had to go through considerable lengths just to stop the movie from being made by MGM. In his foreword to the almost 900-page novel, Werfel wrote the following: “This book was conceived in March of the year 1929, during the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch the incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian people from the Hell of all that had taken place.” When I read the book a year ago, I couldn’t for one second—nor did I want to—ever put down the book. I must reiterate that it’s definitely not an understatement to say that the event would’ve been largely forgotten were it not for Werfel’s efforts. Here he is pictured with representatives of the French-Armenian community, most likely in Paris.
A less well-known example is Vasily Grossman—the great Russian novelist, and dissident. Born on December 12th, 1905, in Berdichev, Ukraine, he volunteered to become a frontline correspondent after the outbreak of WWII. Along with being present at the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin, his account of the horrors at the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps are among the first eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. His extensive 1944 account, The Hell of Treblinka, was used at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence by the prosecution.
After the war, Grossman (pictured below) returned home, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the Soviet Regime and its repressiveness. In the 1950s, he began writing his long novel, Life and Fate, whose central premise was that communism and fascism are essentially alike, despite the fact that the former defeated the latter and liberated Europe from it. Shortly after submitting it for publication in 1959, the KGB raided his apartment, seized the carbon copies, his notebooks, and typewriter ribbons—it was naturally to Grossman’s advantage, however, that they didn’t know he was keeping two other copies of the novel with his friends. Still, Grossman died, in 1964, never knowing whether his work would ever be read. In 1974, with the help of the great dissident, Andrei Sakharov, the novel was smuggled out of the country by his friend Semyon Lipkin and it was published in 1980 in the West for the first time. Russia itself followed along in 1988.
When Grossman got into trouble with the Soviets, he was sent to Armenia by the authorities with the hopes that the trip would take his mind off the matter and get him to write something different. It was precisely this trip which produced the non-fiction work, The Armenian Sketchbook, the cover of which you see below.
Grossman spent his time in the country visiting the country’s most important sites, such as the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the oldest one in the world, along with Lake Sevan, and the Temple of Garni, the only Greco-Roman structure in the post-Soviet states, built in the first or second century of the Common Era. One of the most poignant passages from the book is the ending, where he describes a wedding scene: The speeches and toasts seem to be unrelated to the occasion, but he finally understands that they have everything to do with the wedding and Grossman at last realizes that he has been accepted into the Armenian circle, so to speak. He writes: “Never in my life have I bowed to the ground; I have never prostrated before anyone. Now, however, I bow to the ground before the Armenian peasants who, during the merriment of a village wedding, spoke publicly about the agony of the Jewish nation under Hitler, about the death camps where Nazis murdered Jewish women and children. I bow to everyone who, silently, sadly, and solemnly, listened to these speeches.” It’s for writers like this—books which will exist for as long as humanity lives—that Armenians must be thankful for. We must look past the politics and somehow reconcile our anger with Israel (which, again, like in the case of Turkey, we are justified in expressing) to see that the issue Armenian-Jewish relations is far more subtle and complex than we think it to be.
The last important Jewish figure who wrote about Armenia is Osip Mandelstam. Considered one of the greatest Russian poet, if not the greatest of the twentieth century, Mandelstam was the quintessential dissident. In the 1930s he was twice arrested by Stalin and sent into exile—the second time he was given five years in a labor camp, where he ultimately died. Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he often couldn’t even write it down. His wife, Nadezhda, a name which means “hope” in Russian (certainly a tragedy for him to have a wife with that name when there was so little of it left for him), would usually commit his poems to memory and write them down later.
Mandelstam visited Armenia in 1930 and stayed for eight months. In the midst of the ancient culture and picturesque countryside, the great poet rediscovered his creativity and composed one of his most powerful poems, inspired by the burnt-red landscape, ancient churches, and mountains. His visit produced the prose work, Journey to Armenia, along with his Armenian poetry cycle, which Ian Probstein so generously translated for Interlitq, along with commentary, and it can be read here. An excerpt worth quoting:
I always feel that my spirits are lifted when I read Mandelstam’s words, because as Probstein said, for Mandelstam, “even in Voronezh exile (1935-1937), which he perceives as ‘a lion’s den’ alluding to Daniel, he is still thirsty of life and thinks of an earthly paradise. Hence he viewed his brief journey to Armenia in 1930 not as escape from his harsh reality but as a discovery of the roots of humanity and civilizations.” It’s with this thirst for life, I believe, that we Armenians should move forward and continue living. We now face the same difficulties that Mandelstam encountered during his own life and we owe it to this great Jewish poet to continue fighting our own battles with the same courage and determination—until the very end.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.